Cook Islands: the most magical family getaway destination

Remote, beautiful and bursting with friendly locals and natural wonders (hello, humpbacks!), the Cook Islands in the South Pacific is the perfect place for families who want to laugh, play and escape the 9 to 5 together.

Two people snorkelling in the sea
  • Larissa Dubecki
  • December 2019

“Look, Mum, there’s Nemo,” exclaims my seven-year-old son peering down through the glass floor of the boat we are chugging along on, in the unbelievably clear waters of the Muri Lagoon. His glee is palpable as he watches a moray eel glide past, closely followed by schools of bluefin trevally that change colour from pale to dark when they’re on the hunt for lunch, and giant clams exhibiting their frill-edged shells – all being pointed out by our eccentric guide, “Captain Coconut”.

Cancel the search. Nemo has been found and he’s in the Cook Islands.

This far-flung collection of 15 islands and coral atolls dotted across an area the size of western Europe but only taking up 240 square-kilometres of landmass still remains off the beaten South Pacific track. Yet with tourism numbers jumping – last year a record 168,000 people visited this nation of 17,000 – word is getting out about the beauty of Rarotonga, home of the village-like capital Avarua, and its island siblings.

A boy drinking from a coconut
Laid-back and beautiful, Rarotonga is a must-visit destination for families.

It’s not difficult to see their appeal. The Cook Islands are a place of unforgettable underwater encounters that might make you feel like you’re swimming in a tropical aquarium housing endless schools of bright fish of every colour of the rainbow.

They’re the home of turquoise waters and coconut palm-shaded white sand beaches. And they’re also a destination seemingly purpose-built to forget the pressures of everyday life. From the ukulele-strumming man serenading each plane load of passengers at Rarotonga’s tiny airport to the chilled-out friendliness of locals, it’s a place to set your clock to a cliché-free “island time”.

Only six hours’ flight from Sydney (or about four hours from Auckland), if there was ever a place tailor-made for turning off a hyper-vigilant city parent’s brain, this is it. The locals are child-friendly to the point my kids almost became sick of the constant hair-ruffling. The surreal blue waters are calm and safe thanks to a surrounding ring of reefs absorbing the brunt of the ocean’s force. And there’s more than enough pristine powdery beach to go around – in fact, it’s all too easy to find your own deserted slice of paradise.

A hut on the beach surrounded by water
The Cook Islands are home to turquoise waters and stunning white-sand beaches.

The laid-back lifestyle of Cook Islands' Rarotonga

“Raro”, or “The Rock”, as it’s more commonly known, has no traffic lights (the widely respected top speed limit is 50 kilometres an hour) and no building taller than the highest coconut tree (it is enshrined in law). Floral crowns pass as everyday headwear for women and ownerless chickens roam the streets. Its other idiosyncrasies include a restriction on alcohol sold on Sundays except in resorts (“God is watching,” says one local, pointing to the sky. Ample compensation comes in attending one of the musical services held across the island’s many churches).

The first commandment of the Cook Islands: thou shalt not hurry. It’s a point demonstrated on our first morning at Edgewater Resort & Spa opens in new window when our breakfast of fresh papaya, watermelon, banana and yoghurt on the open-air terrace is interrupted by the sight of a whale water-spouting and breaching beyond the coral reef fringing the island, its tail slapping the water with unbelievable force.

A beach surrounded by palm trees
At Edgewater Resort and Spa, you can spot whales from your breakfast table with some luck!

Humpback whales pass these islands on their migration path from July to October, and we spend an hour simply watching them put on a show as they pass by. It’s a far cry from our hurried toast-on-the-go mornings in Melbourne.

This pretty much sets the tone of our stay throughout – laid-back and punctuated with moments of utter delight.

Keeping an eye on our children in the swimming pool is easy from the adjoining dining terrace, while taking them looking for fish in the shallow ocean water takes a 10-second walk across powder-soft sand. The kids’ club runs classes in everything from Polynesian dance to coconut decorating and the art of tying a pareu (sarong). And the resort is situated on the western side of the island, which means our evenings are spent watching the sunset with a drink in hand.

Ringed by the main 32-kilometre Ara Tapu road that hugs the coastline, nothing in Rarotonga takes too long to get to. Tourists and locals alike converge on the Punanga Nui Market in Avarua where you can buy a croissant that would pass muster in Paris, a meticulously handcrafted ukulele or local black pearls.

We fuel up with a nu (milk from a young coconut) for NZD$3 (about NZD$2.80 – the Cooks use New Zealand currency), tropical smoothies packed with mango, paw paw and protein powder, and local specialty ika mata – a ubiquitous and delicious type of raw fish ceviche “cooked” with lemon juice and soothed with coconut cream.

A market stall with croissants and French bread
The croissants at Punanga Nui Market are as good as any in France

The proud Polynesian culture embraces the catch fished from the ocean each morning such as mahi mahi, wahoo and albacore tuna, which are ubiquitous not only in local dishes but in modern adaptations too. For those times our kids need some familiar foods, we tuck into exceptional burgers and sandwiches sitting on the outdoor picnic bench at Mooring Fish Café opens in new window, a converted shipping-container restaurant run by a New Zealand couple who fish in the mornings and serve up their catch for lunch.

While I’m perfectly happy with just a sun lounger and a book, the kids soon feel the need to burn off energy and, luckily, the Cooks are not only a honeymooners’ paradise, they offer plenty of family-friendly adventure activities. From off-roading on custom-built two-seater buggies through a coconut plantation with Raro Buggy Tours opens in new window to exploring Rarotonga’s hidden rural heart on two wheels with Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours opens in new window, we do it all.

A row of dirt buggies
Explore the island's coconut plantations on the back of a buggy.

On the cycling tour, our guide reveals local secrets such as small farms and a bracingly cold hidden waterfall along the 1000-year-old inland road, Ara Metua. In fact, it’s the people that really make these experiences unique. Our guide's storytelling could only be overshadowed by Captain Coconut’s stand-up routine, which he entertains us with as we enjoy a traditional barbecue lunch under the shade of palm trees at the end of our Muri Lagoon dive cruise.

As my two children, husband and I share another bout of uncontrollable laughter, I stop for a moment to acknowledge this “pinch-me” moment of happiness. This is the real magic of the island life – reconnecting with each other even as we connect with our wise, funny new friends.

You also must visit Te Vara Nui opens in new window. Made up like a traditional village in the heart of Muri Beach, the cultural centre offers a guided tour through the history of the Polynesian people in the Cook Islands, then ends with a buffet dinner and an over-water dance spectacular telling the story of voyaging warrior Tongaiti and his journey across the seas.

A dance show at a hotel resort
Spend an evening entertained by an over-water dance spectacular.

Aitutaki: Rarotonga's even more idyllic sibling

If Rarotonga is idyllic, neighbouring Aitutaki takes things to the next level. With a population of 2000 (Rarotonga’s 14,000 feels very “big city” in comparison!), its drawcards are its blue lagoon and beaches that regularly make the world’s most beautiful lists.

It’s an easy day-trip – the flight from Rarotonga is just 50 minutes and the operators of the Vaka Cruise opens in new window arrange all land transportation so you can spend the day cruising the lagoon and visiting its various motus (islands) onboard their catamaran, with giant, gleaming silver trevally following the boat.

But we stay on the island overnight. It is worth it if only to enjoy the delightful sensation of stepping directly from our veranda onto the sand at Aitutaki Beach Villas opens in new window.

A island lined with palm trees surrounded by the sea
Aitutaki is known for having one of the world's most beautiful beaches.

While on Aitutaki, you can visit the not far away idyllic sandy islet of Tapuaetai. It also goes by the name One Foot Island; take your passport when you visit to receive the indelible memento of a cute passport stamp to immortalise your visit.

“I think the real secret to Aitutaki for most people is its tranquillity,” says bookings manager Ian Osborn. “There’s nothing flash about the island yet the serenity allows you to connect with your family. It’s just a really wonderful place to focus on the simple pleasures of life like the locals do.”

Said simple pleasures include swimming in the lagoon, investigating makatea (fossilised coral) and organising hermit crabs into racing stables until the sun dips into the sea.

The ultimate sign of a good holiday? The kids don’t ask about their iPads once.

From hiking to paddle boarding, here are some of the best things to do in Rarotonga.